When I grew up — not that long ago, really — in Saskatoon, my family and I stuck out sorely. At five years old, I was the only brown Muslim, let alone racialized girl, in my otherwise white kindergarten class. School was tense. My teacher would make daily announcements to our class about how I’d been misguided by my culture. When something went wrong, in class or on the news, it was blamed on me and “the untamed ways” of my people. And, absorbing the intolerance of the grown-ups around them, my peers were wary of befriending me.
If there was one place I could be a kid, it was the mosque. On the morning of Eid al-Fitr — the holiday that marks the conclusion of the month of Ramadan, which focuses on one of the five pillars of Islam, fasting — my mother would pluck my sister and me from our beds, dress us up in matching outfits, and drive us to the Islamic centre. It was built like a school; I wouldn’t be surprised if it had been one before it became a mosque. There was an office, where the imam would work, and there were separate rooms for classes and worship. There was also a gym, which was set up as a carnival during the celebration. Ring-toss stations, a bouncy castle, little children running around and playing tag, including us. This joy was convincing enough for my mother to enroll us in Koran classes.
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It was there I met Sarah, my first friend who was both brown and Muslim, like me.
Our friendship was, if I can use this word to describe what it was like to be five years old and finally see a near-split image of myself, passionate. Each Saturday, I would wake up early so I could get to class and see her. We would sit side by side and hold hands while we drew in colouring books provided by our teacher. In our adventures, we were both the superheroes fighting shaytan (the devil) and any other bullies that got in our way.
Going to the mosque wasn’t always easy. Sometimes there were white folks across the street, watching from their windows and front porches, and even from the sidewalks, glaring at the Muslims entering the building on the weekend, when it was most crowded. My father, an Indigenous man from Iraq whose family’s tribe originated from the Tigris-Euphrates marshlands, was an atheist back then. My parents viciously fought over how to raise us. Already grappling with decades of trauma due to racism in Iraq, my father wanted us to be able to thrive in the West. One of his solutions was to tone down our practice of Islam. My mother, a Palestinian, didn’t trust that others would accept us even if we did give up that part of ourselves.
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I live in Toronto now, and while I have found myself in a community of Muslim folks from various racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds, no city in Canada, big or small, is even close to a perfect example of diversity. Nor has my time in Toronto shielded me from racism and Islamophobia. Bigotry can be found in every pocket of this country.
Canada's mosaic, understood as a happy arrangement of people of different shades and religions and cultures, is a myth. When that myth is tested, when we run up against reality — when strangers stare at us across the street, or kindergarten teachers single out vulnerable students — many people have an impulse to try to reaffirm that myth. Like many myths, it is meant to reassure.
When even worse happens, when a community is torn by tragedy, that myth can, perversely, become even stronger. People in power remind us of the diversity that is our strength, and tell us to look harder, because what we really are is that mosaic, awful experiences notwithstanding. And we try to oblige. But when we do look closely, if we are honest about it, we also see the mosaic in the form of hateful vandalism, a pig’s head on the doorstep of a mosque, or the murder and assault of members of that mosque. We see politicians who dodge meaningful action to combat the U.S. travel ban and engage in or tolerate dog-whistle xenophobic campaigns here at home.
When the world thinks you are a suspect, it is comforting to know that there is a community that believes you when you say you aren’t a threat. People go to the mosque to find relief through life, not death.
One of my favourite memories from that mosque in Saskatoon is another from Ramadan. I was about five and had followed my mother for prayer. Curious as to what the world looked around me when everyone was kneeling down, I looked up. I couldn’t believe it. The rows of women dressed in vibrant colours, perched in lines with perfect order had me in awe. The whole room was in focus.
Across from me, Sarah was also looking up. We both covered our mouths as we tried to not to laugh at the coincidence — it was as if our rapport was built from intuition. Slowly, quietly, we knelt down and finished our prayers with everyone else.
Amanda Ghazale Aziz is a writer and student based in Toronto.